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Children risk lives for gold in Niger desert mine

Children risk lives for gold in Niger desert mine

Twelve-year-old Suley Zourkeley has no illusions about life as a gold miner.

"When you enter you get tired. If you're too tired they can bring you up by a rope but sometimes you can die down there," he said.

At a gold mine in Niger's desert, thousands of children work for little or nothing - getting paid only if they find gold. Hand over hand they clamber down narrow mine shafts up to 80 metres (260 feet) deep to chip rock for gold dust.

Surface temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) at the Koma Bangou mine, 160 km (100 miles) outside the West African country's capital, Niamey. Underground it is far hotter.

"It's dangerous for the children down there because it's too hot," said Zourkeley.

Around 50,000 people live and work at the artisanal mine and up to 30 percent are children, according to an estimate by Ibrahim Balla of the International Labour Organisation, one of the few aid workers to visit the mine regularly.

CONDITIONS "INTOLERABLE"

"Work takes place in conditions that are intolerable, for adults and certainly for children," Balla said. "Today there is no adult, no human being who could stand to see their own son at the bottom of these mineshafts."

Attention has recently been focused on child slavery in West Africa after the hunt for a supposed slave ship from Benin hit world headlines.

Whether they count as slaves or not, millions of children across the region daily risk their lives and health in a struggle to feed themselves and their families.

At Koma Bangou, children climb down ropes into the unprotected mine shafts. Hundreds more working in teams sit in tents or in the noisy, dust-filled air, breaking the rocks with hand tools, or washing and sifting gravel in the hot sun.

Workers said the shafts were particularly dangerous in the unlit town at night because of the danger of falling into them.

Even so digging continues round the clock - why not dig, when in daylight the only light underground is a pocket torch tied to the forehead?

The town is a magnet for diggers from the countries of the Sahel region on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert - one of the world's poorest regions. Villagers are attracted by the elusive promise of a big haul and instant wealth, Balla said.

Gold dust is sold to buyers in Niamey, while traders from across the region keep the town alive.

ICE FOR SALE IN TOWN WITH NO WATER

There is no shortage of life in the gold-rush town, a testament to human endeavour and the driving power of poverty.

Donkeys carry barrels of water to Koma Bangou across the arid landscape. Ice arrives in blocks that are hacked at with hand axes and sold wrapped in sacking to bar owners.

Balla hopes to implement a series of plans to improve the situation of child workers who, he says, face multiple risks in a town where prostitution flourishes and drugs are for sale.

He would like to see work banned for under-12s and the teaching of professional skills. He says a lack of education is an abuse of childhood as serious as the other potential dangers.

"The children don't learn any professional skill whatsoever. Working in the mine is an activity that has no future for children."

But for youngsters who are paid - if they paid at all - as part of a gang on completion of a task, there are few complaints, perhaps because there were few available alternatives.

"I have to work here," said 17-year-old Adama Isaac as he emerged from a mine shaft, covered in sweat and dust. "I need the money."


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